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Why Do We feel So Strongly About Media From Our Past?

Listening to music is a great way to engage the neural networks across your brain on a large scale.

Old songs have a way of triggering memories that seem so vivid as they take us back in time. What are the songs that trigger memories of your past? As time goes on, the songs that are dear to us become interwoven into a neutral tapestry of the people, locations and seasons in our lives. What is the scientific explanation for music’s ability to evoke such powerful memories of the places and people in our past?

I was standing at the convenience store this morning when the 1974 song, Please Come to Boston came on. This is a song I had not listened to in years, and as it played, I was suddenly overcome with flashbacks of places, people and emotions connected to that song from different stages of my life. The song actually reminded me of a teenage love of mine. Music’s deep neural connection to heartbreak, love and a range of other emotions is a common phenomenon across the world.

Sometimes a familiar song will come on unexpectedly and you’ll be caught off guard by a wave of memories. What makes the autobiographical memories connected to music so rich? Remarkably, from all indications, it appears that the neural tapestry of a song is actually purer if you haven’t listened to the song in a while, thereby evoking more specific memories of certain times and places from your past. When you overplay a song, it becomes easier to dilute the memories linked to that song because your neural network is constantly undergoing updates.

The Effect of Neuroscience on Vivid Musical Memories

According to a recent series of studies, music has the ability to engage some of the brain’s broad neural networks, including the regions responsible for evoking emotions, creativity and motor actions.

In a new study - the first of its kind, Séverine Samson and Amee Baird, of the University of Newcastle, Australia, helped people suffering from severe brain injuries to recall personal memories using music. This research was published in the Neuropsychological Rehabilitation journal on the 10th of December, 2013.

Though only a small number of people took part in this study, it is actually the first study to analyze ‘music-evoked autobiographical memories’ (MEAMs) in those patients suffering from acquired brain injuries (ABIs), as opposed to healthy people or those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Samson and Baird played some number-one songs from the "Billboard Hot 100" in random order to persons suffering from ABI in the course of their study. The songs comprised of a collection of music from the life of the patient from the age of five. These songs were also played for control subjects without any brain injury. All the participants were mandated to keep a record of the feelings evoked by certain songs, the memories it evoked and whether or not they liked it.

Remarkably, an ABI patient recorded the highest MEAMs in the entire group. From the study, most of the MEAMs came from people or certain periods in their life, and were mostly positive. The familiar and loved songs evoked more memories than the ones that were unable to trigger a MEAM. This actually makes sense.

Two studies have been able to identify the wide range of neural networks engaged when humans listen to music. In 2009, a study from the University of California, which mapped the brain as people listened to music, discovered that certain brain regions connected to autobiographical emotions and memories are activated when there’s familiar music. This UC Davis study was published in the Cerebral Cortex journal titled, "The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories."
The green areas represent familiar songs.
According to Petr Janata, the author of the study who is also an associate professor of psychology, Center for Mind and Brain, UC Davis, this particular discovery will shed more light on why music is able to elicit such strong emotions in people suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The hub activated by music can be found in our medial prefrontal cortex region – just behind the forehead.

According to Janata, "What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye. Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories."

To ensure that the students associated some of the songs with the memories from their past, they decided to choose random songs from the "Billboard Hot 100" charts that existed when the subjects were between the ages of 8 and 18. The students answered questions about the tunes after each excerpt, and were asked whether the tunes were familiar, if they enjoyed them, and whether they associated it with any incident, memory or episode.

According to the study, the students recognized approximately 17 out of the 30 excerpts on average, and they associated 13 of them with autobiographical memories. As revealed in the recent study from Australia, the songs connected to the strongest and most salient memories evoked the most vivid and emotional responses.

Upon studying the fMRI images and comparing them to the self-reported reactions, Janata discovered that each memory’s level of salience corresponded to the level of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex’s upper (dorsal) part. This discovery supports Janata’s hypothesis where he stated that the brain region can link memory and music.

In addition, Janata created a model that can be used to map music tones as it moves between chords, as well as in and out of minor and major keys. He also discovered that, making tonal maps of every musical excerpt and comparing it to the corresponding brain scans, helped the brain to track the tonal progressions within the same region as it experienced the memories: within the medial prefrontal cortex’ dorsal part, and in regions adjacent to it. Therefore, a stronger autobiographical memory will lead to greater “tracking” activity, even in this case.

Music can engage the brain regions connected to emotions, creativity and motor actions.

Finnish researchers in a 2011 study used a revolutionary method to study the procedure employed by the brain to process different parts of music like, tonality, timbre and rhythm, in what is considered a realistic listening situation. This study was published in NeuroImage journal.

The researchers realized that listening to music can activate wide networks inside the brain, including those areas responsible for evoking emotions, creativity and motor actions. Their mapping method revealed a lot of complex brain network dynamics and how music affects us. Participants in this study were scanned using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) as they listened to a rich musical stimulus, and some modern Argentinian tango.
Music has a way of lighting up the entire human brain.
The Finnish researchers were able to correlate the temporal evolutions of tonal, rhythmic and tonal features of musical stimulus. Though timbral feature processing is linked to activations in the cognitive part of the cerebellum, including the sensory and the cerebral hemisphere’s default network grey matter, emotion and motor-related circuits, cortical and subcortical cognitive were recruited by tonality processing and musical pulse.

The researchers discovered that, apart from recruiting the brain’s auditory areas, listening to music also engages large-scale neural networks. For example, they found out that the processing musical pulse helps recruit motor areas within the cerebrum and cerebellum, which gives credence to the theory that movement and music are closely related.

They also discovered that the Limbic region of the brain, which is associated with emotions, was involved in tonality and rhythm processing. Timbre processing was linked to activations in the default network mode, which is presumably associated with creativity and mind wandering.

According to Professor Petri Toiviainen of the University of Jyväskylä, "Our results show for the first time how different musical features activate emotional, motor and creative areas of the brain.” He also stated that “We believe that our method provides more reliable knowledge about music processing in the brain than the more conventional methods."

Conclusion: Media has a lot of therapeutic potential

In conclusion, the Finnish researchers were able to combine behavioral methods, neuroimaging, and acoustic features, which revealed that the large-scale cognitive, limbic and motor brain circuitry is actually engaged when we listen to music. Their study also has some practical and potentially therapeutic benefits because it can be used to observe a person’s neural processing according to the person’s response to music and their unique history.

Séverine Samson and Amee Baird’s conclusion was that: “Music was more efficient at evoking autobiographical memories than verbal prompts of the Autobiographical Memory Interview (AMI) across each life period, with a higher percentage of MEAMs for each life period compared with AMI scores. Music is an effective stimulus for eliciting autobiographical memories and may be beneficial in the rehabilitation of autobiographical amnesia, but only in patients without a fundamental deficit in autobiographical recall memory and intact pitch perception.”

Petr Janata, also concluded that his long-term goal will be to develop music-based therapy for those suffering from Alzheimer’s since the autobiographical memories connected to music appears untouched in people suffering from the disease. In his words, "What's cool about this is that one of the main parts of the brain that's tracking the music is the same part of the brain that's responding overall to how autobiographically salient the music is."

Recent clinical trials of Music Therapy for the cognition of
Alzheimer's Disease and other Dementia

Year Trial Technique Sample Size Therapy Time Results
2006 Irish M et al. [1] Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ from ‘The Four Seasons’ on a cassette recorder as a background during the test 10 mild Alzheimer's Disease, 10 healthy elderly; everyone is in Music Therapy and silence condition Two occasions (silence and music) at the same time of day, exactly 1 week apart The recall on the autobiographical memory of AD in music condition improved; A significant reduction was on the State Trait Anxiety Inventory in the music condition.
2007 Bruer RA et al. [2] listen to the songs including singing along and playing instrument 17 Dementia with cross-over design  1 h/week × 8 weeks The scores of MMSE improved immediately after and the next day of MT compared with control group.
2009 Ozdemir L et al. [3] Multisensory stimulation (including MT, painting pictures, and orientation interventions) 27 mild AD 4 sessions/week × 3 weeks The scores of MMSE increased, and the scores of Geriatric Depression Scale and Beck Anxiety Scale decreased. This effect continued for three weeks after completion.
2012 Meilán García JJ et al. [4] different five kinds of music, including happy, sad, cafeteria sound, music without an emotional component, and absence of sound 25 AD (with five sessions individually) 30 min/session, and each session spaced by at least one week Sad music was found to be the most effective to autobiographic memory.
2013 Arroyo-Anlló EM et al.  [5] listen to the Spanish songs 20 AD with familiar music, 20 AD with unfamiliar music; all were mild or moderate AD 2–4 min/session × 3 sessions/week × 3 month AD patients who received a familiar music intervention showed a stabilization or improvement in aspect of SC. The AD group with unfamiliar music showed poorer scores in MMSE and FAS test after intervention, whereas the familiar music group did not vary in their cognitive performance.
Narme P et al.  [6] music played on a CD player, and excerpts covered different styles (e.g., classical instrumental, familiar songs); Participants were asked to participate by singing and/or by using percussion instruments moderate or severe AD, 18 in MT group, 19 in cooking group 1 h × twice a week × 1 month Both music and cooking improved the patients’ emotional state and decreased the severity of their behavioral disorders, as well as reduced caregiver distress. No benefit was on the cognitive status.
2014 Särkämö T et al. [7] sing/listen familiar songs with vocal exercises; rhythmic movements (singing group) and reminiscence and discussions (listening group) mild and moderate dementia: 27 in singing group, 29 in listening group, 28 in control group 1.5 h/session, weekly to daily × 10 weeks Both singing and music listening improved mood, orientation, and remote episodic memory to a lesser extent, also attention and executive function and general cognition. Singing enhanced short-term and working memory and caregiver well-being, whereas music listening had a positive effect on QOL.
Satoh M et al. [8] Singing training (using karaoke and the YUBA Method, passive listen and sing themselves) AD: 10 in MT group, 10 in control group once a week (60 min) or more × 6 months Time for Japanese Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices reduced. NPI score decreased. Sleep time prolonged.
2015 Li CH et al. [9] listen to Mozart’s Sonata (KV 448) and Pachelbel’s Canon with headphones Mild AD: 20 in MT group, 21 in control group 30 min daily in the morning and before sleep × 6 months CASI-estimated MMSE and CASI in the MT group were less decreased than control group without statistical significance, and the change of abstraction domain in the MT group was better. The score changes of NPI had no statistical significance in two groups.
2015 Palisson J et al. [10] Three texts were separately sung by the Ode to Joy by Beethoven (melody), spoken/recorded by Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin (movie sequence), or spoken alone; each text was visually presented. 12 mild AD, 15 healthy controls; either a musical (sung) or a nonmusical association (spoken associated to a silent movie sequence) or without association (spoken alone) Each text contained eight lines, and texts were ask individual to remember them step by step. Sung texts were better remembered than spoken texts for both groups, both immediately and after a retention delay.
Kim HJ et al. [11] multidomain cognitive stimulation (art, music, recollection and horticultural therapy); MT involved playing melodies and/or accompanying chords for popular songs AD with CDR = 1; 32 training, 21 controls 1 h × five times/week (MT just for once a week) × 6 months Training group showed improvement in the word-list recognition and recall test scores versus the control. No change in the overall CDR score, but the domain of community affairs improved in the cognitive intervention group. QOL-AD of caregivers was slightly improved in the intervention group.
2016 Gómez Gallego M et al. [12] listen to the music which they like; patients should greet, dance, play instruments and so on 42 mild to moderate AD 45 min/session, twice a week × 6 weeks Significant improvement was observed in memory, orientation, depression and anxiety in AD patients. In addition, improvement was observed in anxiety in mild ones, and in delirium, hallucinations, agitation, irritability, and language disorders in moderate AD patients. Open in a separate window
MT music therapy, AD Alzheimer’s Disease, MMSE mini-mental state evaluation, SC self-consciousness, FAS frontal assessment short, QOL quality of life, NPI neuropsychiatric inventory, CASI cognitive abilities screening instrument, CDR clinical dementia rating
1. Irish M, Cunningham CJ, Walsh JB, Coakley D, Lawlor BA, Robertson IH, et al. Investigating the enhancing effect of music on autobiographical memory in mild Alzheimer’s disease. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord. 2006;22:108–20. doi: 10.1159/000093487.
2. Bruer RA, Spitznagel E, Cloninger CR. The temporal limits of cognitive change from music therapy in elderly persons with dementia or dementia-like cognitive impairment: a randomized controlled trial. J Music Ther. 2007;44:308–28. doi: 10.1093/jmt/44.4.308. [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Ref list]
3. Ozdemir L, Akdemir N. Effects of multisensory stimulation on cognition, depression and anxiety levels of mildly-affected Alzheimer’s patients. J Neurol Sci. 2009;283:211–3. doi: 10.1016/j.jns.2009.02.367.
4. Meilán García JJ, Iodice R, Carro J, Sánchez JA, Palmero F, Mateos AM. Improvement of autobiographic memory recovery by means of sad music in Alzheimer’s Disease type dementia. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2012;24:227–32.
5. Arroyo-Anlló EM, Díaz JP, Gil R. Familiar music as an enhancer of self-consciousness in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Biomed Res Int. 2013;2013:752965. doi: 10.1155/2013/752965.
6. Narme P, Clément S, Ehrlé N, Schiaratura L, Vachez S, Courtaigne B, et al. Efficacy of musical interventions in dementia: evidence from a randomized controlled trial. J Alzheimers Dis. 2014;38:359–69.
7. Särkämö T, Tervaniemi M, Laitinen S, Numminen A, Kurki M, Johnson JK, et al. Cognitive, emotional, and social benefits of regular musical activities in early dementia: randomized controlled study. Gerontologist. 2014;54:634–50. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnt100.
8. Music Therapy Using Singing Training Improves Psychomotor Speed in Patients with Alzheimer's Disease: A Neuropsychological and fMRI Study. Satoh M, Yuba T, Tabei K, Okubo Y, Kida H, Sakuma H, Tomimoto H Dement Geriatr Cogn Dis Extra. 2015 Sep-Dec; 5(3):296-308.
9. Adjunct effect of music therapy on cognition in Alzheimer's disease in Taiwan: a pilot study. Li CH, Liu CK, Yang YH, Chou MC, Chen CH, Lai CL Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2015; 11():291-6.
10. Palisson J, Roussel-Baclet C, Maillet D, Belin C, Ankri J, Narme P. Music enhances verbal episodic memory in Alzheimer’s disease. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2015;37:503–17. doi: 10.1080/13803395.2015.1026802.
11. Kim HJ, Yang Y, Oh JG, Oh S, Choi H, Kim KH, et al. Effectiveness of a community-based multidomain cognitive intervention program in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Geriatr Gerontol Int. 2016;16:191–9. doi: 10.1111/ggi.12453.
12. Gómez Gallego M, Gómez García J. Music therapy and Alzheimer’s disease: cognitive, psychological, and behavioural effects. Neurologia. 2016